White paper interviews with subject matter experts are essential to capturing important information you’ll use in your document. As a white paper writer, I’ve interviewed plenty of sources, from tech experts to CEOs.
Based on those conversations, I offer the following 8 tips for executive sources as they prepare for white paper interviews. (By the way, these tips are just as good for article and case study interviews, too.)
It helps you to know the general nature of the questions ahead of time, so I usually send those in advance. You should come up with some key points you’d like to share for each question.
But don’t write out all of your answers and read from a script. I’ve encountered this a couple of times, and my reaction is two-fold:
Remember, the goal of the interview is to gather information in a structured yet informal setting. It’s a conversation, but it’s also an opportunity for me to hear how you express your ideas, not just what the ideas are themselves.
Listening to you talk helps me capture your personality and perhaps the tone that the white paper will have.
I just told you to be prepared. I will be, too. However, since we’re having a conversation, I often ask follow-up questions that aren’t on the original list. This is usually in response to something that needs more explanation.
So you’ll still have to wing it. And this is good, because the most memorable quotes in a white paper are not planned. They happen during the course of the conversation and drop into my hands like little gifts.
It’s one of the reasons that interviews conducted solely via email are dull and boring. Because people who carefully craft each answer are thinking too much about what’s “correct” and “appropriate.”
Here’s a quote I included in a white paper about Scrum and Agile. The source, Michael de la Maza, said the following:
“The role of ScrumMaster, as it’s defined, is an awesome role. Here’s this person who’s an expert in organizational change who can also talk to VPs, interact with teams, remove impediments, and so forth. It’s difficult to find a single person to do that.”
If he had written down that same idea, he wouldn’t have used the word “awesome,” he wouldn’t have said, “Here’s this person,” and ultimately he wouldn’t have sounded like he was having a casual conversation.
In other words, it’s ok to go off script. That doesn’t mean you’re off message. And you always get a chance to revise. After all, you’ll review the white paper before it’s published.
Examples help illustrate your key points in the white paper. It’s one thing to claim that a software tool offers a particular benefit to customers. It’s another to provide an example of how it works or how a particular customer benefited.
Examples essentially back up your claims. And they add interest to the content. It’s the same thing with sportscasters, whether it’s basketball or ice skating. You’ve got one person commenting on the facts: what happened, who’s doing what, like that 3-pointer Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors just landed.
And you’ve got another person providing color commentary, explaining how Curry, at a mere 6’3’’, became one of the greatest shooters in NBA history. He did so by teaching himself a new shooting technique in high school to get around players who were taller than him. He also uses intense dribbling drills and works out hard at the gym.
See? Now we have some context that added important info and fleshed out the story. The same goes for your white paper interview.
I’ve done my homework. I’ve researched your industry, your company, and your topic. But it might be new to me, or something may not be easy to understand. So I’ll ask you to explain something.
If you have to clarify something, think about comparisons that could make the point easier to understand. I’ve had subject matter experts describe how loud or big or expensive something is by comparing the concept to something else.
You know the expression “bigger than a breadbox”? That’s a simile, and it offers a useful point of reference, especially for complex subjects.
One other thing: your interviewer may be new to your industry. Be ready to spell out acronyms and break down industry lingo.
Numbers are compelling data points. They’re often highlighted in the white paper in a sidebar, a pull quote or a table.
During the white paper interview, my request for data may come up this way:
Numbers are like examples. They back up claims with additional information and help to persuade the audience reading your white paper.
Most of the information collected for an interview is not presented verbatim. It’s rewritten and massaged into presentable copy.
Your “ums” and pauses, even those moments where you blank out on a name, won’t matter. Unless we’re making a speech at the United Nations, most of us are expected to talk like regular human beings.
As we wrap our heads around ideas and formulate answers, we may move forward in fits and starts. That’s OK. This is not a Q&A or a podcast where every utterance is captured.
Perfect sentences don’t matter. Just get your ideas across in a coherent manner.
I’m not talking about yoga breathing, although that’s helpful, too. I’m actually referring to problems with cell phones.
Many of us use our cell phones rather than landlines for interviews. This means when we’re talking, we hear only ourselves and no one else. Until we pause. This can be frustrating, because we’re often talking over each other.
Sometimes I need to interrupt to ask for clarification. If I don’t interrupt, I may not understand everything that follows the confusing part.
So my suggestion is that you take a breath and pause every once in awhile as you tell a story. This allows the interviewer to jump in and ask another question.
The goal of most white papers is to represent your company as a thought leader. You’re discussing a topic that’s top of mind for your customer, and they’re looking for solutions.
This isn’t the time to talk about your product or service for 30 minutes or however long the interview is. If you do, your white paper will read like a sales sheet or product brief, and that is not the ideal intent.
For example, I recently wrote an ebook for a leadership training company, and the client and I agreed to a 70/30 split: 70% to address the problem the potential client has and the ideal solution, and 30% about the company’s specific solutions.
In a lot of white papers, the solution offered by the company is only mentioned at the end, in the boilerplate about the company.
If you’re a source for the white paper — or even an article or case study produced in-house — you’ll have a chance to review what you’ve said. This isn’t investigative journalism where you wait until something is splashed across the Internet.
My point is, the goal of the interview is to gather information and data, and to make you look good. A white paper is marketing content, after all.
Need help with a white paper? Let’s talk about your project!